The problem with claiming “it’s aliens”

I doubt the New Yorker thinks Harvard University is a big deal the same way many Indians do, but its persistence with Avi Loeb’s ideas only suggests that it is. Or it is being sensational.

Both possibilities are unsettling.

Avi Loeb is a theoretical astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astronomy. He is quite well known for his outlandish explanations for physical phenomena. Most of them are certainly grounded in known science but still exhibit an atypical affinity towards the outermost limits of our knowledge. (For examples, see the preprint papers he has authored/coauthored here.)

It is for these reasons that Loeb’s ideas are to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is not that they are impossible but that they are immensely improbable. And as an astrophysicist who knows what he is talking about, Loeb also can’t not know that his claims are extraordinary, often to the extent that they do little more than draw attention, either to him or to some deeper issue he claims he is spotlighting:

My motivation, in part, is to motivate the scientific community to collect more data on the next object rather than argue a priori that they know the answer.

But none of these is a problem. The problem arises when, as a magazine of sizeable repute, the New Yorker does a poor job of contextualising his words. For example, Loeb claims in his quote above that we don’t have enough data, but in another place, he says his idea was simply following the facts. But when the interviewer asks him if he is simply plugging holes in the evidence with theories of his own, Loeb dodges with whataboutery.

As mentioned earlier, Loeb’s ideas are improbable, not impossible, which makes them that much harder to refute. If they had not been grounded in science, he could – and would – simply have been dismissed. But Loeb stays within the realm of possibility, albeit right up at the boundary. It is just that, in the process, the New Yorker fails to provide a true impression of the validity of his ideas.

In science, hypotheses that originate within its rules are more valid than those that originate without. But even among the former group, some ideas are more valid than others, and ‘aliens’ is one of the least valid. In this landscape, the New Yorker‘s interview suggests that ‘aliens’ is a reasonable hypothesis by returning repeatedly to Loeb without going through the necessary trouble of clarifying that it is entertaining at best.

(It is possible that the magazine decided it would try to do this through the interview itself, by pushing back against the interviewee effectively enough to make the them ‘concede’ the issues with their position. But all this does is remind me of their trouble with Steve Bannon all over again.)

My favourite way to understand this is through Bertrand Russell’s response when asked what he would say should he one day discover that god actually exists: “Well, I would say that you did not provide much evidence.”

Aliens – if they are around and nearby – are not making themselves easy to detect either. Granted, they represent a form of unknown-unknowns that we should not be so quick to dismiss. We should still look for them. However, we should not pin every other seemingly inexplicable thing on them because that also closes off the non-alien unknown-unknowns. And just like that, we would be guilty of what the New Yorker is doing with Loeb: popularising one explanation to the detriment of more valid others.

This in turn feeds an already-troublesome impression: not that the more far-fetched the claim, the more media coverage it will receive, but that only the most far-fetched claims will receive any coverage at all.